Chapter 9: Introduction to Wildlife Management on Public Lands

Lauren Anderson

Public lands are managed for a variety of resources and therefore, have a variety of competing interests. The needs of ranchers must be weighed against the needs of timber harvesters, those must be weighed against the interests of mining and energy companies, and last but not least, those must be weighed against the interests of wildlife managers and the public. Wildlife is intrinsic to functioning ecosystems and is an incredibly valuable—but often overlooked—resource. Hunting, fishing, and bird watching are significant components of the $82-billion-dollar outdoor recreation industry, and public lands in the West protect some of the most unique and amazing wildlife in the world (Vincent, Hanson, and Argueta 2017).

Federally owned lands constitute more than 46 percent of the eleven coterminous western states and more than 61 percent of Alaska (Vincent et al. 2017). Managing and protecting this outdoor heritage for future generations has a long and complicated history within the US and has been undertaken by multiple federal and state agencies. Federal lands are primarily managed by four agencies:

  • the Bureau of Land Management under the Department of the Interior (248.3 million acres)
  • the US Fish and Wildlife Service under the Department of the Interior (89.1 million acres)
  • the National Park Service under the Department of the Interior (79.8 million acres)
  • the Forest Service under the US Department of Agriculture (192.9 million acres; Vincent et al. 2017)

Together, these four agencies manage 90 percent of all federal lands. The Department of Defense is the fifth-largest land management agency. Additional federal lands not managed by these agencies include those associated with water projects, which fall under the authority of the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Post Office, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Energy, and other agencies manage other federal lands.

State fish and wildlife agencies often employ the foremost wildlife managers in the United States. State agencies were responsible for preventing the extinction of species such as the Rocky Mountain elk, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep. States have the legal authority to manage federal lands within their borders only to the extent Congress has given them such authority, but one of these authorities most often granted is the management of wildlife. Without explicit federal action, such as listing a species under the Endangered Species Act, states set the population levels of species within their borders. States fish and wildlife agencies are often responsible for managing wildlife populations, while federal agencies are often responsible for managing the wildlife habitat those species depend on (Bureau of Land Management 2018).

While this chapter does not cover wildlife management on private lands, it is important to note that individuals in the West own vast tracts of the landscape, and they have contributed significantly to wildlife conservation efforts over the years, and in some cases, the degradation of wildlife habitat. Resentment of private landowners to oversight by federal agencies, in the case of the Endangered Species Act, rangeland management, and other federal oversight, has broken trust on both sides and created barriers to effective communication. Preventing these conflicts while also ensuring adequate protection of public resources is an ongoing challenge for wildlife managers.

This chapter provides a brief overview of the responsibilities and authorities of the federal agencies tasked with wildlife management on public lands, summarizes the main environmental laws that guide these efforts, and describes the different governing statutes implemented by agencies to better define this work. This chapter also outlines a few of the key challenges faced by wildlife management on western public lands, including invasive species, wildlife disease, habitat loss, and climate change. The chapter concludes with an overview of a twenty-first-century model for wildlife conservation as intended for managers contending with the evolving challenges of managing public lands.

The National Park Service

National Parks protect some of America’s most beautiful and iconic landscapes. They are home to some of our most vulnerable wildlife and are managed by the National Park Service (NPS) under the direction of the Secretary of Interior. The NPS was established in 1916 to manage a growing number of national parks and monuments. Today, there are many different names for the types of lands the NPS manages, including national parks, national monuments, national preserves, national historic sites, national recreation areas, and national battlefields- all together there are 28 different designations, with over 400 managed areas in the US. The NPS has a dual mission to preserve unique resources and to provide for the enjoyment of the public. Activities that harvest or remove resources from NPS lands are generally prohibited, though there are challenges in conserving resources while also maximizing public access.

The Bureau of Land Management

The BLM manages more wildlife habitat than any other federal or state agency (Bureau of Land Management 2018). Unlike the National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the BLM and Forest Service operate under a multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate that supports a variety of activities and programs. Created in 1946, the BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public lands primarily located in twelve western states and administers about 700 million acres of federal subsurface mineral estate throughout the nation (Bureau of Land Management 2018). This land includes scrubland, grasslands, and forests, as well as vast areas in Alaska’s arctic tundra. The BLM coordinates these efforts with federal, state, tribal governments, local agencies, and many other relevant partner organizations. Wildlife conservation efforts by the BLM are funded through partnerships with federal, state, and nongovernmental organizations (Bureau of Land Management 2018). Conservation actions are usually part of an approved conservation plan for special-status species.

 The Forest Service

The Forest Service, a department housed within the US Department of Agriculture, was established in 1905 and now manages 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. In addition, the Forest Service is responsible for the stewardship of nearly 500 million acres of non-Federal rural and urban forests, which it manages in collaboration with state and local governments (US Forest Service 2009). Within the Forest Service, the Watershed, Fish, Wildlife, Air & Rare Plants program (with the odd acronym WFWARP) is responsible for working as a crosscutting program that helps to meet the agency’s land management and resource stewardship responsibilities. In combination with these responsibilities, the Forest Service must also balance competing needs for the commodities forests and grassland produce using the sustainable multiple-use management concept. These commodities include clean water, energy, timber, and recreational activities.

Unlike the National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the BLM and Forest Service operate under a multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate, via the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) respectively.  The National Forest Management Act requires the National Forest Service to prepare management plans for every forest under its jurisdiction. It also places significant environmental constraints on the Forest Service and gives it a mandate to manage for wildlife diversity. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act also requires the BLM to prepare resource management plans. These plans are meant to be updated as new data becomes available, and they are meant to be informed by public engagement. Lands managed under these acts are administered for five different purposes: outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish purposes (Kannan 2009). Combined, the acreage overseen by the two laws amounts to almost 20 percent of the US.

Two other key management priorities of the Forest Service are the Planning Rule and the Roadless Rule.

Planning Rule

In 2012, the USDA announced a new Planning Rule for the National Forest System. This rule included stronger protections for forests, water, and wildlife and aimed to bolster the economies of rural communities. According to the Forest Service, land management plans under the new rule includes the following components (US Forest Service 2012):

  • Restore and maintain forests and grasslands.
  • Provide habitat for plant and animal diversity and species conservation. The requirements are intended to keep common native species common, contribute to the recovery of threatened and endangered species, conserve proposed and candidate species, and protect species of conservation concern.
  • Maintain or restore watersheds, water resources, water quality including clean drinking water, and the ecological integrity of riparian areas.
  • Provide for multiple uses, including outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, wildlife, and fish.
  • Provide opportunities for sustainable recreation and recognize opportunities to connect people with nature.

Forest Service’s Roadless Rule

In 2001, the Forest Service established the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (Roadless Rule). According to the Forest Service, “[t]he 2001 Roadless Rule establishes prohibitions on road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands. The intent of the 2001 Roadless Rule is to provide lasting protection for inventoried roadless areas within the National Forest System in the context of multiple-use management” (US Forest Service 2001). Roadless areas play a key role in our nation’s defense against the impacts of global climate change. They act as an environmental insurance policy, providing the last best hope to keep ecosystems intact. During the coming decades, wildlife will need intact migration corridors in order to survive climate change (US Forest Service 2001).

The US Fish and Wildlife Service

President Franklin Roosevelt established the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1940. Most of this agency’s authority stems from the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956, which requires the agency to protect, conserve, and enhance the country’s fish and wildlife resources. Due to its primary use mission, other uses such as recreation and resource extraction are only permitted when they are compatible with the species’ needs. When it comes to managing wildlife, the USFWS is the lead federal agency tasked with enforcing the following laws:

1917 Migratory Bird Treaty Act

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects over a thousand bird species from unnecessary death and harm. It is one of the United States’ oldest and most important wildlife conservation laws. It allows for the regulated hunting of many bird and waterfowl species, but also prevents deaths caused by industrial activities, such as open mining pits and oil spills. Specifically, it gives USFWS the authority to regulate the take of migratory birds across state boundaries. Administrative actions, taken in 2017 and 2018, have reinterpreted the 100-year-old law to not apply to incidental take, requiring that the USFWS be able to prove intentional harm. This action severely limits the reach of the law, and leaves its future influence uncertain.  For example, where the government once could regulate a toxic site that was killing birds, the government can now only regulate such a site if they prove the company was intentionally killing birds.

1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act

This law prohibits anyone, without a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior, from “taking” bald eagles, including their parts, nests, or eggs.” There are limited exceptions for Native Americans’ religious purposes, and for scientific purposes. The Act defines “take” as “pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb.”

1973 Endangered Species Act and 1977 Amendments

The ESA was a game-changing piece of legislation, shifting responsibility of threatened and endangered species from the states to USFWS. The ESA is implemented jointly by FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), but for the purposes of wildlife management on western public lands, this section will focus on FWS only. The ESA was intended to be the final safety net that prevented species from going extinct, and in that regard, it has been an incredible success. Since it was enacted, the ESA has successfully prevented the extinction of more than 99 percent of the over 1,500 domestic species that have been listed through the Act.

A major part of the FWS’ program for conserving listed species includes designating “critical habitat,” which is selected based on what a designated species needs to survive, reproduce, and recover. The FWS must also evaluate the anticipated economic impacts of the designation, with both the designation and economic impact analysis open to public comment. A critical habitat designation does not impose restrictions on private lands, it only triggers the ESA requirement that actions authorized, funded, or carried out by federal agencies must not destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitat. Other federal agencies consult with the FWS to ensure this goal is met. Critics of the ESA point to the long and arduous process of removing species from the ESA, or delisting them, as an argument for rolling back protections under the law. But, while the recovery process could be improved, the ESA does have some remarkable success stories, including delisting of the Louisiana black bear, the gray whale and the brown pelican.

The Endangered Species Act is arguably the strongest wildlife conservation law in the United States, but as wildlife conservation and management has progressed, it is becoming clear that the ESA is not enough to protect America’s wildlife. The threats wildlife are facing, as detailed later in this chapter, are multiplying and changing in the era of climate change. Emergency measures that are designed to prevent a species from going extinct are becoming insufficient to prevent the chronic background decline that creates the emergency in the first place. It is this cryptic background decline that is creating a true and immediate wildlife crisis in America and it is this degradation that must be addressed in a 21st century model for wildlife conservation.  

There are many examples of the ESA working to protect and recover threatened and endangered species such as gray wolves, bald eagles, and currently attempts to restore grizzles in Washington. Notably, ongoing ESA efforts to protect sage grouse demonstrates how collaborative efforts by stakeholders could hold the key to successful conservation efforts.

The Sage Grouse Rule

As of 2018, the future of the sage grouse rule, which was finalized in 2015, remains uncertain as the current administration reevaluates the rule. During the Obama Administration, the protection plans established an unprecedented conservation partnership across the western United States. These plans encompassed Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Northern California, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. The initial rule created a model for multi-state, multi- agency collaboration in order to prevent at risk species from needing the strict protections of the Endangered Species Act.

This effort was one of the largest conservation undertakings in US history. Sage grouse, which are large and unique looking birds best known for their “lek” dances, inhabit sagebrush habitat that covers a landscape approximately the size of Texas. This habitat has been severely fragmented by human development and land use change, which resulted in the severe decline of sage grouse populations. When the USFWS began to evaluate the species to see if it warranted protections under the Endangered Species Act, it triggered a unique partnership between scientists, ranchers, industry, and conservation interests who all saw the value in preserving the bird and allowing the states to continue with their economic development plans. The result was a first of its kind, landscape-scale management strategy that demonstrated the extent to which a successful collaborative process could enhance wildlife conservation efforts (US Fish and Wildlife Service 2015).

Finally, the USFWS also manages the National Wildlife Refuge System. The first of the National Wildlife Refuges, Pelican Island, was established in 1903, although it was not until 1966 that the various refuges were formed into the National Wildlife Refuge System. Today, there are approximately 560 national wildlife refuges in the United States. This system is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and it includes wildlife refuges, waterfowl production areas, and wildlife coordination units. The system of refuges protects hundreds of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, and also protects almost 380 endangered species, a critical component of the efforts to protect and restore America’s endangered wildlife. These same refuges also generate more than $2.4 billion for local economies and create nearly 35,000 US jobs annually (National Wildlife Refuge Association 2018).

Environmental Laws, Rules and Programs that Define Wildlife Conservation

Aside from the aforementioned environmental laws, there are many other laws, rules and programs that have shaped the management of public lands and wildlife conservation in the west. The laws that created public lands in the first place were some of the most influential wildlife conservation laws, as they established protected spaces and gave wildlife room to roam. The 1906 Antiquities Act enabled the President to designate America’s special places as national monuments and the 1964 Wilderness Protection Act created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States, and protected 9.1 million acres of federal land. Further, laws establishing the National Park System and the National Wildlife Refuge System protected millions of acres for wildlife. In addition to the laws that established public lands, the following examples highlight other policies that have influenced wildlife conservation.

1948 Clean Water Act and the 1972 Amendments

Originally called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, it was reorganized, expanded and renamed as the Clean Water Act in 1972. The Clean Water Act made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act was established by the 1972 amendments. It protects wetlands on private and public lands by regulating the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States (which includes wetlands). Wetlands are among the most productive of all ecosystems; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that more than one-third of threatened species and endangered species live only in wetlands, and half use wetlands at some point of their lives. Protecting wetlands will protect those species and the other wildlife that depend on wetlands (Kannan 2009). The US Fish and Wildlife Service evaluates impacts to fish and wildlife under Section 404 (Environmental Protection Agency 2017).

1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) establishes a broad framework for protecting the environment. NEPA’s basic goal is to ensure all branches of the federal government give proper consideration to the environment impacts before undertaking a major federal action that could significantly impact the environment. NEPA allows the USFWS to evaluate fish and wildlife impacts that result from federally permitted projects through Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements, and allows the agency to require mitigation for unavoidable fish and wildlife losses. It also opens the decision-making process to public comment, allowing people to have a voice on decisions that impact public lands.

Sentinel Landscapes Program

The US Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Defense (DoD), and the Interior (DOI) established the Sentinel Landscapes Partnership through a Memorandum of Understanding in 2013.  It covers landscapes that are working lands or natural lands important for the mission of the DoD. The program aims to strengthen the economies of ranches, farms, and forests while also conserving wildlife habitat. These efforts are all made in the context of ensuring the military installations based on these lands, and the tests and training missions they conduct, are protected. The program aims to encourage coordination of conservation efforts between private landowners and the Sentinel Partnership in order to “reduce, prevent or eliminate restrictions due to incompatible development that inhibit military testing and training” (Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute 2018).

Department of Defense’s Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan’s (INRMP’s)

The Department of Defense (not including the US Army Corps of Engineers) administers 11.4 million acres in the United States (about 2 percent of all federal land) (Vincent, et al. 2017). These lands consist of military bases and training ranges, but under the Sikes Act, the DoD is also responsible for conserving and protecting biological resources on its lands. According to the DoD and the USFWS, “INRMPs provide for the management of natural resources, including fish, wildlife, and plants; allow multipurpose uses of resources, and provide public access necessary and appropriate for those uses, without any net loss in the capability of an installation to support its military mission” (US Fish and Wildlife Service 2004). These plans guide the use and conservation of natural resources, including wildlife, on lands and waters under Department of Defense control.

BLM’s Ecoregional Assessments

The BLM conducted a series of ecoregional assessments in response to climate change and other rapidly changing environmental factors. It is important to understand how climate change and the competing demands for land use will alter the landscape, and the rapid ecological assessments were meant to inform land use planning and management decisions. The data, maps and tools will help formulate coordinated, multi-agency strategies to respond effectively to climate change, wildfire and other environmental challenges. Seven of these assessments were conducted on the Central Basin and Range, the Mojave Basin and Range, the Sonoran Desert, the Northwestern Plains, the Middle Rockies, the Colorado Plateau, and Alaska’s Seward Peninsula-Nulato Hills-Kotzebue Lowlands.

Clean Water Rule (also called the Waters of the United States Rule)

This rule was published in 2015 regulation by the EPA and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). It defines all bodies of water that fall under US federal jurisdiction and the Clean Water Act. This includes streams and wetlands that connect to traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, and territorial seas. These waters offer flood protection, filter pollution, and provide critical fish and wildlife habitat. In 2017, the Trump administration announced its intent to review and rescind the rule. These efforts are ongoing and the future of this rule remains unclear (Environmental Protection Agency 2019).

Conservation in the Anthropocene: Challenges to wildlife conservation on public lands

The Anthropocene Epoch has become a recent science buzzword, a new definition for the current geologic time period we live in today. Technically, we are in the Holocene Epoch, which started after the last ice age, but there have been so many human–caused environmental changes over the last few decades, that many scientists and wildlife managers have suggested we are entering a new era- the Anthropocene. Regardless of what we call it, wildlife managers today are facing a host of new challenges, many of which have been caused by the influence people exert on their environment. The below examples highlight some of the challenge’s wildlife managers must contend with.

Invasive species

The spread of invasive species on western public lands creates a host of challenges for wildlife managers. Invasive species management costs over $120 billion a year and affects more than 100 million acres and have contributed to the decline of 42 percent of threatened and endangered species (Western Governors Association 2017). Invasive plants and animals can reduce rangeland productivity, increase the risk of wildfire, and impact outdoor recreation. Species like cheatgrass and salt cedar have been identified on over 79 million acres of BLM-managed lands. Cheatgrass, which is an annual species native to Europe and Eastern Asia, thrives in disturbed areas and outcompetes many native species. The grass dries out earlier than other species, lengthening the fire season in sagebrush habitat across the Great Basin (Sage Grouse Initiative 2018). Salt cedar, also called tamarisk, out competes other species in riparian ecosystems, creating a monoculture that sucks up large amounts of water. This can lower groundwater levels in western ecosystems that are already suffering from the impacts of drought. Invasive animal species include feral hogs, nutria, and the European starling. These are only a few examples of the types of invasive species land managers have to contend with, there are many, many more.

Habitat Loss and Degradation

Habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to wildlife, and public lands offer one of the few remaining safe havens. Wildlife move both daily and seasonally to survive. However, the habitats animals rely on continue to be fragmented by housing, roads, fences, energy facilities, and other man-made barriers. The expanding US population is bringing more people and development into conflict with wildlife and their historic habitats. As a result, animals are struggling more and more to reach food, water, shelter, and breeding sites.  Improving habitat connectivity is one way in which wildlife managers can counter the threat of habitat fragmentation. Habitat connectivity is defined as the degree to which the landscape facilitates or impedes animal movement and other ecological processes, such as seed dispersal. Removing fences and other barriers, and building wildlife friendly infrastructure like wildlife crossings can facilitate wildlife movement in a fragmented landscape.

Climate Change

Climate change is impacting landscapes across the United States, especially public lands in the West. As explained above, public lands are already facing a host of threats, including invasive species, wildlife disease, and habitat loss and fragmentation. Climate change is expected to amplify these impacts and add a host of additional threats, including higher temperatures and drought. As the impacts of climate change continue to develop and spread across western public lands, the risk of significant biodiversity loss is growing, leading to a wildlife crisis. Biodiversity includes the diversity within a species, between species, and of ecosystems. A more diverse ecosystem is typically a healthier and more resilient ecosystem, and healthy ecosystems provide a variety of benefits to people and wildlife, including clean water, clean air, and healthy soils. It is important that biodiversity on public lands is protected from worsening climate change. The examples of climate change impacts below illustrate how biodiversity loss is becoming a real problem.

Mega Fires: The length of the fire season, and the area burned by mega fires, has increased as a result of climate change and warmer, drier conditions. Invasive species that are spreading as result of climate change, like bark beetles, are also playing a role as the trees killed by the beetles add new fodder to the fires. New fire regimes are also allowing the spread of invasive species like cheatgrass. These fires and their associated environmental impacts can also lead to hunting restrictions as habitat is lost and degraded, and wildlife populations need more time to recover.

Low Snowpack: A lower snowpack resulting from higher average temperature and changes in weather patterns is also threatening wildlife and public lands. Snowmelt supplies about 60 to 80 percent of the water in major western river basins, including the Columbia, Missouri, and Colorado Rivers. This snowmelt is also the primary water supply for about 70 million people (Branch 2017).  Lower winter snowpack will lead to reduced stream flow during the summer months, which will impact temperature sensitive aquatic species like trout, and amphibians like frogs and newts. Scientists estimate that one-third of the current cold-water fish habitat in the Pacific Northwest will be unsuitable by the end of the century. Fishing on public lands is a favorite among American pastimes, but fishing may likely be restricted as a result of low stream flows and impacted fish populations.

Rising Temperatures: Public lands also support climate sensitive species, such as American pika. These small rabbit-like creatures live on high elevation rocky slopes and are suffering from rising temperatures. While some populations seem to be able to adapt to a changing climate, high elevation populations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Northwestern Great Basin have been less resilient. A population of pika in the Lake Tahoe area of California has been extirpated entirely, a shocking loss to wildlife lovers and one of the first recorded local extinctions of a species resulting directly from climate change (Stewart, Wright and Heckman 2017). Weather data from the area shows a 1.9°C rise in average temperatures and a significant reduction in snowpack.

Migration Timing: Public lands also support one of the largest land-based migrations in North America- the mule deer migration in Wyoming. Mule deer time their migration in Wyoming to follow the spring greening as they move from lower winter habitat to higher summer habitat. As seasonal change is altered by a warming climate, these deer are struggling to time their migrations to match the “green wave” of new growth (US Geological Survey 2015).

Drought: Wildlife is also showing signs of stress from drought. Pronghorn populations at the northern end of their range have remained stable, but the populations in the Southwest, a geographically and genetically distinct sub-species of pronghorn, have not fared as well. In the Southwest, pronghorn populations have been declining since the 1980’s, and scientists believe that climate change is partly to blame. As a result of changing precipitation patterns in the Southwest, 50 percent of the pronghorn populations examined by researchers could disappear by 2090 (US Geological Survey 2017).

Building a 21st Century Model for Wildlife Management

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is a set of principles that has guided wildlife management and conservation decisions in the United States and Canada. The models’ origins are based largely on advocacy efforts of sportsmen, who witness firsthand what overexploitation could do to wilderness and wildlife populations. Examples of this overexploitation include the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the near extinction of the American bison, and the sharp decline of many migratory bird species in the early 1900s US Department of the Interior 2017a). While the model does not have any legal powers, it has still influenced many of the wildlife laws and policies outlined earlier in this chapter. The core principles of the Model are elaborated by seven primary tenets (Wildlife Society and Boon and Crocker Club 2012):

  1. Wildlife as public trust resources: This means that people cannot own wildlife, though they can own the land on which it resides. Wildlife are held in trust for the public by state and federal governments.
  2. Elimination of markets for game: There is no commercial hunting or sale of wildlife.
  3. Allocation of Wildlife by Law: Wildlife is allocated by law, not other determinations such as market principles.
  4. Wildlife should only be killed for a legitimate purpose: it is unlawful to kill wildlife unless there is a specific reason, such as a need for food, fur, self-defense, and the protection of property (including livestock).
  5. Wildlife is considered an international resource: wildlife do not follow the same boundaries as people do, therefore resources must be managed internationally, for example – migratory birds and aquatic species.
  6. Science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy: Science must be the basis for informed management and decision-making. Decisions should not be made based on the goals of different interest groups.
  7. Democracy of hunting: This tenet is based on the concept that hunting can benefit all society. It also acknowledges that limiting access to firearms would also limit the average citizen’s ability to hunt. This could hamper the goals of the model, as sportsmen were integral to the start of the conservation movement, and their spending on firearms and ammunition pays for much of wildlife conservation in the US.


These seven basic tenets guide much of modern wildlife conservation, though critics have called for strengthening the model to fit the needs of 21st century wildlife management. For example, detractors claim that the scope of the model is too narrow, and too specific to game species and the interests of hunters and anglers. Also, critics point to success stories around the privatization and commercialization of wildlife in Europe as an example of the shortcomings of “elimination of markets for game” tenet, calling instead for more sustainable harvest strategies.  While the model is not perfect, it does offer a starting point for building a comprehensive, science-based strategy for 21st century wildlife management. The following areas cover some of the ways in which this model can evolve.

Adequate funding for all species

Funding for wildlife conservation on federal lands is an ongoing challenge for wildlife managers. The lack of funds limits maintenance and restoration activities, as well as the acquisition of new lands (such as those needed to improve habitat connectivity). The main funding source for land acquisition is appropriations from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). In addition to this, the Fish and Wildlife Service uses the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (supported by sales of Duck Stamps and import taxes on arms and ammunition) as a source of funding.  The Department of Defense uses its own appropriations laws to acquire funds for new lands.

While the addition of new lands likely benefits wildlife, there is a critical need for funds to manage wildlife on current public lands. The competing uses of public lands, such as grazing and energy development, can degrade land and result in habitat loss for wildlife. The need for ecological restoration often gets lumped in with other infrastructure needs, and falls into the “maintenance backlog,” which includes all of the other maintenance needs of public lands that were not performed when scheduled. The four main agencies together had a combined FY2016 backlog estimated at $18.62 billion (Vincent, et al. 2017).

Most funding for wildlife conservation comes from hunters and anglers, and in the west, most public lands are open to hunting and fishing. Money collected from federal excise taxes on certain hunting and fishing equipment under the Pittman-Robertson Act (also called the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act) directs funds to states for wildlife restoration and hunter education. The Duck Stamp is another significant source of funds. Purchase of a duck stamp is required for hunting migratory water fowl such as ducks and geese and sales have raised more than $950 million, helping to protect or restore nearly 6 million acres of habitat for birds and other wildlife (US Fish and Wildlife Service 2018).

Because much of the funding for conservation comes from hunters and anglers, game species tend to benefit more than other wildlife. This is a problem, as neglected wildlife populations can decline to the point where they need emergency protections under the Endangered Species Act. It is important that adequate funds ensure all wildlife populations are protected, not just those hunted and fished (Wildlife Society and the Boone and Crockett Club 2012).

Given the magnitude of the challenges faced by wildlife managers on public lands, it is critical that additional funds be directed towards wildlife conservation needs. While there is no easy answer to this need, there are some options. For example, while sportsmen and women provide many of the funds for conservation, there are many other people who benefit from wildlife on public lands. Outdoor enthusiasts, including hikers, campers, birdwatchers, kayakers, and many more, all enjoy the wildlife found on western public lands. Ensuring that they become proactive stakeholders and contributing to wildlife conservation funding is a critical first step.

Better Define the Roles of Land Managers and Wildlife Managers

In addition to permanent and adequate funding, there is also a need for role clarity among federal agencies, state agencies, private landowners, and other entities charged with protecting wildlife in the West. While wildlife law in the US dates back to over 100 years ago, there are still issues related to constitutional law, sovereignty, and ownership that create conflict. Further, there are deep-seated tensions between federal and state governments that challenge the interjurisdictional nature of wildlife conservation.

As an example of this type of conflict, in 2015 the National Park Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service overrode the state of Alaska’s hunting regulations to prohibit certain practices on national preserves. The National Park Service stated, “[t]o the extent such practices are intended or reasonably likely to manipulate wildlife populations for harvest purposes or alter natural wildlife behaviors, they are not consistent with NPS management policies.”  In January 2017, the state of Alaska sued the Interior Department, challenging the right of the federal government to override the State’s right to manage wildlife (Schadegg 2017). Now, the National Park Service is proposing to reverse this rule in light of the Trump Administration’s wildlife conservation goals. Secretarial Order 3347, signed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directs the Interior Department to increase access to hunting and fishing opportunities and improve cooperation and communication with state wildlife managers (US Department of the Interior 2017b). The agency also points to Secretarial Order 3356, signed in 2017, that in part directs NPS to “begin the necessary process to modify regulations in order to advance shared wildlife conservation goals/objectives that align predator management programs, seasons and methods of take permitted on all Department-managed lands and waters with corresponding programs, seasons and methods established by state wildlife management agencies” (US Department of the Interior 2017c). This is an example of how shifting politics and new administrative goals can change the dynamics of wildlife conservation on public lands, and highlights the need for more role clarity between state and federal agencies.

Stronger Partnerships with Private Land Owners and Tribes

While there is a need to better define roles and clarify the decision-making process amongst government actors, there is also a need to create a collaborative process that brings more voices to the table, and ensures all Americans are invested in the future of wildlife and public lands. Private landowners have the potential to make significant contributions to wildlife conservation. Wildlife on public lands do not have borders, and use habitat on private lands as well. Practices like controlled burns, invasive species removal, erecting nest boxes, protecting riparian habitat reducing erosion and removing fencing can help wildlife tremendously.

An example of the type of programs that encourage private landowner participation are Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs). These are voluntary conservation agreements between the US Fish and Wildlife Service and one or more public or private parties. Candidate species are species that are at risk and may need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. The USFWS works to identify the threats to these species and partners with private landowners to implement measures to conserve the species. These agreements help address landowner concerns about the potential regulatory implications of having a listed species on their land, as they limit the landowner’s future obligations if they comply with the agreement.

The Farm Bill is one of the most significant sources of conservation funding in the US. and focuses on programs for private landowners. Through the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, and Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, hundreds of millions of dollars are set-aside for private landowners to keep wetlands, grasslands, and other fragile lands protected for wildlife habitat. Programs like these, along with the Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances program, build trust between regulators and private landowners and create incentives for them to participate in wildlife conservation efforts.

Tribes are another important conservation partner for wildlife managers to collaborate with on wildlife protection in a changing world. Tribal lands are sovereign lands, and are not subject to federal public land laws. However, American Indian lands in the lower 48 States comprise over 45 million acres of reserved lands and an additional 10 million in individual allotments. There are another 40 million acres of traditional native lands in Alaska. Partnering with tribes to protect species is important, as many of these lands have remained largely untouched and offer some of the best habitat for at risk species.

Conclusion: Chase success stories, not silver bullets

Protecting and recovering wildlife on public lands is a challenging task. A number of state and federal agencies form a patchwork of authorities across Bureau of Land Management lands, Forest Service lands, National Parks, and National Wildlife Refuges. The laws and regulations that govern this authority are complicated and challenging to navigate. Further, there is no one silver bullet solution to the many hurtles wildlife managers must overcome. Funding shortfalls, growing and changing threats, and lack of clarity when it comes to decision making on public lands all contribute to the difficulties of this task. However, solutions do exist, even if there is not a one-size-fits-all model for success. The United States has one of the most advanced and remarkable wildlife conservation legacies in the world, and it is possible to ensure wildlife populations are protected, and thriving, in a rapidly evolving and increasingly impacted world.


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